THE highs and lows of rugby league could not have been encapsulated much better than through the fortunes of York City Knights and Barrow Raiders over Easter.
The Knights had their high on Good Friday, with a memorable victory over mighty Featherstone, just as Barrow were having their low, a last-minute defeat at Keighley dumping them to the foot of the Kingstone Press Championship.
Jump forward to yesterday, and agony and ecstasy are reversed, with the Knights set to enjoy the club’s first away victory in 21 months courtesy of second-half tries by home-grown youngsters Kriss Brining and Ed Smith – only for Barrow to beat them in the very last second.
It could not have been much crueller, as they held on under late pressure before left-winger Adam Clay finished a fantastic try in the corner, just as the hooter had sounded, to give him a hat-trick and the hosts a 20-18 triumph. There had been a knock-on at the last play-the-ball, too, not spotted by the officials.
York at least left with a bonus point, but that was scant consolation. The long wait for an away win goes on. Gary Thornton’s men, so good at home, have now twice lost away to a team propping up the table.
Their display was not nearly as good as that against Featherstone. Fans will bemoan the ongoing inconsistency, but this defeat had as much to do with the difficulty of backing up so soon after a tough, and superb, win.
In mitigation for Thornton’s charges, they lost second-row Jack Pickles to a head injury at half-time, Jack Lee was struggling with a calf problem and winger Nat Browne played on after turning an ankle in the first half.
They were also without crocked duo Matt Nicholson and Sam Scott – both conspicuous by their absence. The former faces a long lay-off and this game was early evidence his potency up front will be badly missed.
Thornton also again had no dual-reg lads to call on and, although he would probably have been lambasted by some for tinkering with a winning team, such squad rotation might have been handy here.
Craig Potter, Luke Stenchion and, making his third debut for the club, Nathan Freer were all available and were natural replacements in the pack for Nicholson and Scott, as well as young Tyler Craig, the only other player to make way.
But Stenchion and Freer have not played much rugby league recently and the latter’s rustiness after his spell in rugby union with Bishop Burton College was a concern – and one which grew early on as his shoddy pass was mishandled by Pickles, with home winger Clay sprinting 80 metres for a fourth-minute interception try, Kurt Haggerty goaling.
Barrow, for their part, had made only one change to the side beaten so harshly at Keighley, with full-back Dean McGilvray out with concussion and Barrow Island amateur Tom Brannon debuting on the wing, Mike Backhouse switching to full-back.
Backhouse had a nightmare opening, his second handling error giving York a scrum from which James Ford equalised, stepping his man with ease. Tom Carr converted.
Backhouse made amends, though, with smart cover following Lee’s break, of which the Knights should have made more, and the game changed at that point.
The visitors had started on top but errors crept in, handing the hosts a way back. Clay duly got his second try from a scrum 40 metres out, James Haynes, his opposite winger, badly caught out by the pass. Haggerty goaled.
York had the first half-chance of the second half, ten minutes in, with Backhouse just getting to Simon Brown’s reverse kick before Carr could reach it.
From the dropout, the Knights were level, sub hooker Brining, sharp and quick from dummy-half, somehow twisting his body to touch down under the posts, Carr converting.
Brown missed a 40-20 by inches, but it counted as another error, giving Barrow the scrum less than 40 metres out.
The defence did well, though, and Brown’s next relieving kick was considerably more profitable, Clay poorly conceding a dropout.
Brown’s smart pass then found Smith on a good line to put York ahead for the first time, Carr converting, with 57 minutes gone.
Barrow had a great chance to hit back as Liam Harrison – who justified his status as The Press’s ‘one to watch’ – broke through in centre-field, but he ignored support and met Carr’s crunching tackle.
They did not miss their next chance, though, which came after the game’s only penalty, 64 minutes in, for offside, with a decisive exchange of passes seeing Aaron Low touch down.
Haggerty missed the kick, meaning York were still poised for a maximum Easter haul.
Brown’s boot kept the Raiders at arms length for the much of the last 15 minutes, but as the clock ticked into stoppage time, they forced a dropout, and, roared on by a healthy crowd, they won it with that superb last throw of the dice.
Barrow: Backhouse, Brannon, Low, Wiper, Clay, Finch, Casey, Butler, Nicholson, Spencer, Harrison, Haggerty, Toal. Subs (all used): Dawson, Mossop, Haggarty, Brennan.
Tries: Clay 4, 26, 80; Low 65.
Conversions: Haggerty 4, 26.
Knights: Carr 8, Browne 6, Ford 7, Latus 6, Haynes 5, Brown 7, Presley 6, Potter 6, Lee 6, Aldous 7, Pickles 6, Smith 8, Freer 5. Subs (all used): Brining 7, Iley 6, Bell 6, Stenchion 6.
Tries: Ford 11; Brining 51; Smith 57.
Conversions: Carr 11, 51, 57.
Man of the match: Tom Carr – busy and effective, one of the few players to back up a fine show on Friday with another excellent performance.
Referee: Chris Leatherbarrow (St Helens) – let the game flow superbly, but was a tad lax on offsides and York will claim he missed a vital knock-on prior to Adam Clay’s match-winner.
Moment of the match: James Ford seemed to surprise even himself with the ease with which he stepped his opposite number after receiving the ball from a scrum, before darting home for York’s first try.
Gaffe of the match: James Haynes was caught ball watching for Barrow’s second try.
Gamebreaker: Adam Clay’s last-second winner for the Raiders. Obviously.
Match rating: not the best quality but terribly tense in the second half and an agonising finale for the visitors.